The yelling had escalated into slapping and punching between the two sisters, 10 and 13. “The younger sister kept invading her sister’s room, dancing in the background of the screen during virtual learning,” says Amanda Ann Gregory, a psychotherapist in Chicago. “It was really embarrassing for the 13-year-old. Things were very, very tense.”

It’s a scene that’s likely playing out in many family households, as the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched and strained families in extraordinary ways thanks to school closures, social isolation, and anxiety over an uncertain future. And with kids spending most of their time at home under heightened stress, experts say this may lead to an uptick in sibling conflict.

The quality of sibling relationships can have significant impacts on kids’ development, says Maria Johnson, director of Youth and Family Innovations at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth. “When sibling tension increases beyond the norm to toxic and abusive behaviors, it can be psychologically detrimental later in life,” she says. For example, research suggests that sibling conflict is linked to anxiety, depression, and aggression.

On the flip side, positive relationships between siblings often provide kids with social support, which can be a form of protection from other life stressors. So when conflict arises, teaching kids how to navigate them in a healthy way can help forge stronger bonds between siblings and set them up for future success.

Luckily or not, parenting during the pandemic means you might be facing more opportunities than ever to teach children more effective conflict management skills.

Read more in National Geographic.

Published April 2021